I’m a poetry noob but it’s one of those things I need to get into before I’m dead. Ray Bradbury once said that aspiring authors should read a poem a night, and, well, that’s unrealistic because we all have lives and we’re not all as optimistic as Ray Bradbury was, so getting the motivation to do things often involves jumping hurdles, such as depression, sickness, and irresponsible drunkenness. Regardless, I really want to understand poetry on a technical level, so let’s begin with the beginner stuff.
What’s a Foot?
So, there is apparently a measuring unit in poetry (I never realized poetry had to be measured, but okay), and it’s called a “Foot.” A foot is made up of “stressed and unstressed syllables” and the combination of “feet” creates what is known as “meter” (don’t worry, we’ll get there). Then, the meters are joined to create an entire poem (ta-da! Poetry).
The types of foot
There are different types of foot (feets?) as well. For instance:
- Iamb is a combination of unstressed and stressed syllables, which looks like “daDUM.” It appears in the last two lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, when the author writes, “So LONG / as MEN / can BREATHE / or EYES / can SEE, So LONG / lives THIS,/ and THIS / gives LIFE / to THEE” (ThoughtCo.)
- Trochee is the reverse of Iamb in that it is a combo of stressed and unstressed syllables that looks like “DUMda.” Most famously, Edgar Allen Poe used Trochee in “The Raven.” A few examples include, “And the Ra-ven, ne-ver flitt-ing, still is sitt-ing, still is sitt-ing / On the pal-lid bust of Pal-las just a-bove my cham-ber door;” (Lit Charts).
- Anapest is a combination of two unstressed and a stressed syllable, which looks like “dadaDUM.” Anapest can often be found in limericks, such as the famous Nantucket jam:
- “There once was a man from Nantucket / Who kept all his cash in a bucket. / But his daughter, named Nan, / Ran away with a man, / And as for the bucket, Nantucket.”
There are more feet (foots?) as well, including Spondee, Dactyl, Amphibrach, and Pyrrhic, but I think you get the point already—pretty much it’s different combinations of syllables however stressed and unstressed. So, ideally, we use foot as the starting point of a poem, and it informs the kind of language we are going to use on a technical level. Good to know!
Photo: By Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c15064, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1273616